Introduction: Tax and financial incentives are more generous for contributions to 401(k) plans than for the repayment of student debt.
- Workers are allowed to to save untaxed dollars in a firm-sponsored retirement plan or an individual retirement account.
- Firms can match employee contributions to the 401(k) plan. Two common 401(k) matching formulas are 50 percent of the dollar amount contributed by the employee up to 6.0 percent of the employee’s salary and 100 percent of contributions up to 3 percent of the employee’s salary.
- Student borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of interest on student loans.
- The student loan tax deduction pertains exclusively to interest while the entire 401(k) or IRA contribution is exempt from taxes.
- There are no matching contributions for student loan repayment.
The decision to prioritize 401(k) contributions over student debt repayment does not always work out well as discussed in a previous post. Potential consequences include:
- Higher total loan payments associated with selection of longer loan maturities.
- Higher borrowing costs stemming from higher debt levels and lower credit ratings.
- Early disbursements of 401(k) funds leading to penalty and tax payments.
- Increased likelihood of having debt obligations in retirement.
Student borrowers who quickly repay their loans would increase saving for retirement, realize lower borrowing costs, start the process of paying off their mortgage and would basically be much better off.
There is general agreement that student debt significantly impedes saving for retirement by young households. There is, however, no real consensus on how to fix this problem.
Proposed modifications to 401(K) plans in the SECURE Act 2.0, which would induce some student borrowers to begin saving through a 401(k) plan, don’t solve this problem. Expanded incentives for the use of Roth IRAs by student borrowers would be far more effective than expanded incentives for 401(k) contributions.
The Secure Act 2.0:
Wall Street favors and greatly benefits from incentives for 401(k) investing. The Secure Act 2.0 maintains the high priority attached to 401(k) saving and facilitates participation in 401(k) plans by student borrowers.
The Secure Act 2.0 has the following features:
- Requires automatic enrollment of employees in 401(k) plans
- Requires all catchup contributions be designated as Roth contributions
- Allows designation of matching contributions to a Roth account
- Delays mandatory distributions
- Reduces waiting period for 401(K) contributions from 3 to 2 years for part-time workers.
- Authorizes 401(k) matches for student borrowers even if they do not participate in a 401(k) plan.
The general purpose of the Secure Act 2.0 is to expand investments through 401(k) plans.
Many people who rely on high-cost 401(k) plans often end up paying a substantial portion of their savings to Wall Street. Go here for a discussion of the impact of 401(k) fees on retirement.
The proposal only benefits student borrowers at firms with 401(k) plans, workers at firms with plans offering matching contributions, and workers eligible for the 401(k) plan.
Many student borrowers will not benefit from this provision in Secure Act 2.0 including:
- Self-employed workers and people employed by firms not offering a 401(k) plan. Only 53 percent of small and mid-size firms offer a 401(k) plan.
- People at firms with 401(k) plans that do not match employer contributions. Around 49 percent of all firms do not offer an employer match.
- Employees who are ineligible for the firms-sponsored 401(k) plan. Around 24 percent of firms require one year of service for entry to the firm-sponsored 401(k) plan.
- Employees eschewing 401(k) plans due to vesting requirements.
It is reasonable to anticipate that increased 401(k) contributions by young adults with student debt will fail to increase retirement wealth because, as evidenced by this CNBC article, around 60 percent of young adults end up raiding their retirement savings earlier in the career.
An Alternative Proposal, Incentives for Increased Use of Roth IRAs:
A more equitable and efficient way to balance the goal of saving for retirement with rapid repayment of student debt is through incentives to increase contributions to Roth IRAs instead of 401(k) plans
This could be accomplished by modifying the SECURE Act in the following fashion.
- Mandate automatic contributions to Roth IRAs instead of automatic contributions to 401(k) plans
- Mandate automatic use of low-cost highly diversified IRAs unless person opts for a different investment strategy
- Allow employers to match contributions to Roth IRAs or contributions to 401(k) plans
- Allow employers to give employer matches to holders of Roth IRAs even if the student borrower does not contribute to the Roth IRA.
- Prohibit distributions from investment income inside Roth IRAs prior to age 59 ½.
A strong case can be made that many workers should maximize the use of Roth IRAs instead of traditional IRAs even under current law.
- There are substantial tax savings in retirement from the use of Roth IRAs from two sources. First, the distribution for the Roth IRA is not taxed during retirement. Second, the Roth distribution does not count towards the income limit leading to the taxation of Social Security benefits. Households that rely primarily on Roth distributions in retirement often do not pay any tax on their Social Security benefits.
- Distributions from Roth contributions prior to age 59 ½ are not subject to income tax or penalty. This feature benefits young adults who tend to raid their account prior to retirement and pay taxes and penalty.
- The Roth account does not allow 401(k) loans, a feature that causes people to distribute funds and even close the entire account prior to retirement.
This proposal encourages student borrowers who are ready to save for retirement to choose a Roth IRA instead of a 401(k) plan. The change will increase retirement saving for several reasons
- Some firms without a firm-sponsored retirement plan may provide an employer match to an IRA because there should be no administrative costs imposed on the firm for this type of contribution
- The automatic selection of a low-cost IRA will usually result in lower fees and higher returns compared to the default 401(k) option.
- The restriction on distributions from investment income until after age 59 ½ prevents people from distributing all retirement assets and closing the retirement plan prior to retirement.
- The IRA could receive matching funds from multiple employers.
Both the Secure Act 2.0 reforms and the alternative one presented here favor Roth accounts over traditional accounts. The use of Roth accounts favors low-income student borrowers because their marginal tax rate and deduction for contributions to traditional 401(k) plans is low.
The use of Roth accounts by low-income low-marginal-tax-rate workers facilitates diversion of some assets for debt repayment because the holder of the Roth requires less wealth to fund a sufficient retirement.
Concluding Remarks: Wall Street and financial advisors consistently advise their clients to prioritize 401(k) contributions over rapid repayment of student debt. This approach is not leading to a secure financial life for many student borrowers who are paying more on student debt over their lifetime, incurring high borrowing costs on other loans, having trouble qualifying for a mortgage and raiding their 401(k) plan prior to retirement. The use of Roth IRAs and rules allowing employers to match contributions into a Roth rather than contributions into a 401(k) will help student borrower better balance student debt repayment and retirement saving.
The more rapid repayment of student debt might also be facilitated by a partial discharge of student debt after around 60 on-time payments as describe in this post.
A list of student debt post presented here will be updated with new articles when available.